TFW Nina Chanel Abney's Paintings Reflect Your Newsfeed

By Camille Wong

Nina Chanel Abney, “Ivy and the Janitor in January” (2009). Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Nina Chanel Abney, “Ivy and the Janitor in January” (2009). Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Nina Chanel Abney’s Royal Flush is a collection of Abney’s works from 2008 to the present held in two locations— the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and the California African American Museum. With an expertise knowledge of her medium, she continues to challenge herself as she shifts towards a stylistic approach and experiments with geometric forms and spray paint demonstrating curiosity and room for growth in her practice. In her pieces, she loosely describes the contemporary African American experience using symbols, storytelling, and figurative subjects.

In this exhibition you can clearly see the progression of her practice as it travels from representational and figurative to iconographic. At a glance, some of these paintings appear cryptic, unwilling to place the subjects in a specific time or space with an array of numbers, limbs, and words hovering over the figures. It’s reminiscent of disconnected thoughts, like the way information is constantly competing for real estate in our mind. It feels as if the viewer is entering Abney’s subconscious— watching a live feed of her inner thoughts.

Abney has stated that she is heavily influenced by symbols and iconography. Namely how with a few subtle shapes and lines, a meaning can be implied. Metaphors and abbreviations are integral to her work just as much as her subversion to it— unwilling to box herself or her characters in. By swapping genders and body parts of different races, she prevents singular, racially-loaded interpretations.

This mismatching is prevalent In “Ivy and the Janitor in January” (2009) where we see two subjects— one woman-esque figure and another two-headed figure. Above the “woman’s” head is a pair of floating hands holding two masks. Here we see a clear example of Abney playing with gender and racial identities. Figures with patchwork skin and indistinguishable genders, she forces the viewer to think beyond the subconscious cues and shortcuts that we’re familiar with.

Nina Chanel Abney, “Untitled (FUCK T*E *OP)” (2014). Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Nina Chanel Abney, “Untitled (FUCK T*E *OP)” (2014). Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

In her more recent works, she plays with a range of symbols such as arrows, splatters, X’s, and triangles to suggest movement, violence, and sound. This is heavily employed in “Untitled (FUCK T*E *OP)” (2014). This painting displays the earlier forms of her experimentation towards truncated speech and emoji-like symbols. This piece has a more clear direct message which is implied from the title and her strong use of symbols. In this piece, six black figures appear to be facing a blue wall suggesting a line of cops. Several of the figures are silenced with an X over their mouths. Other cues suggest violence through the dripping of red paint. There is a lot of movement and resistance implied through the use of shortened speech such as “NOO” and “POW OW.”

Not only is this a critique on our culture’s tendency to favor short and fast-paced bits of information but also the surplus amount of it constantly being bombarded at us. Between Chrissy Teigen’s tweets, the latest political scandal, and hashtags that address social change, we are forced to filter through copious amounts of information. Because of this, our culture is constantly in a state of flux, refreshing every minute to reflect new content. However, what this exhibition really highlights is the longevity of an artist’s desire for social change. An exhibition that spans Abney’s career since the 2000’s, we find that her work is still relevant today.

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Camille Wong